To Build Sustainable Communities, We Must Grapple With the Past

Kayla Swanson and Rose Jennings, both of the Science Museum of Minnesota, wrote this post.

The historic neighborhood of Rondo was long a hub of Black community and culture in St. Paul, Minnesota. However, the construction of Interstate 94 in the 1960s divided the neighborhood, destroying homes and businesses and driving many residents out. Yet Rondo is resilient—in spirit and in reality—and here at the Science Museum of Minnesota’s Kitty Andersen Youth Science Center, we are honored to support young people in understanding its history and imagining its future.

In September 2022, Jaraux Washington approached us to be part of the 2892 Miles to Go: Geographic Walk for Justice program for educators in St. Paul. Jaraux is a lead educator with 2892, a social justice education program supported by the National Geographic Society. The program uplifts the lived history of the destruction and restoration of the vibrant Rondo community. The 2892 St. Paul Collection aligned perfectly with our STEMJustice Framework, which places STEM learning (science, technology, engineering, and math) in the context of community engagement, social change, and career and workforce development.

We firmly believe that, to educate others, we must first educate ourselves by gathering the knowledge and bringing it back to our communities. All of our after-school educators participated in on-site training co-led by Jaraux and Emmanuel Donaby, a fellow 2892 lead educator and storyteller, to learn more about the history of the Rondo community and how to use the 2892 St. Paul Collection as a teaching tool. It was powerful to see the educators leave the training more empowered and passionate from learning about the unjust destruction of the Rondo community.

Once educators were informed and inspired, they implemented the 2892 St. Paul StoryMap and youth learning guide throughout our existing lesson plan on building a model community. We went to five partnering St. Paul middle schools and taught two-hour lessons two days a week during after-school programming.

We didn’t introduce the Rondo community immediately. Instead, on the first day we focused on urban planning, construction trades, and green or eco-friendly communities. Next, we led students in discussion and debate about the resources needed to create a healthy, vibrant, and sustainable community. Students engaged deeply in the discussion process. It was wonderful to hear them talk about, for example, whether it makes sense to have three McDonald’s in a four-block radius but not one grocery store. When they started sharing their ideas, we were able to see sparks of understanding and creativity and see how intentional they were about creating sustainable and inclusive communities to fit the needs of everyone. Once the students agreed on the elements necessary for a community to be healthy, vibrant, and sustainable, they spent the rest of the day mapping out and drawing blueprints of their communities. The following week, students began building their model homes, grocery stores, hospitals, schools, community centers, etc. They were collaborative during the construction process, sharing recycled materials like cardboard, Popsicle sticks, milk cartons, and other materials. By helping one another and brainstorming and troubleshooting together, they built a classroom community while also creating a physical community. Once they completed their models, students proudly presented what they had created.

Left to right: A model of Minnesota chain grocery store Cub by students at Creative Arts Secondary School; a community blueprint created by students at Murray Middle School (Images by Kayla Swanson / Kitty Andersen Youth Science Center)

Then we told students that “the city” had decided to build a highway through the middle of their community. We took out a strip of their model to represent destruction done in the Rondo neighborhood. Students were frustrated, upset, and felt it was unfair to lose a part of the community they had worked so hard to build. We explained that the very same thing happened in the Rondo community in the 1960s. We held an open dialogue on what they knew about the Rondo community. Many of the students knew about Rondo Days, a St. Paul festival held every third Saturday in July to remember the old Rondo community. It was interesting to hear that they knew about Rondo Days but not the history behind it. This missing knowledge illustrated to us why the 2892 St. Paul Collection is so important: It brings our history back to us; it shows how, through strength and resiliency, suppressed or underappreciated stories can still be seen and heard—and are valued and important!

We spent a whole day going through the online StoryMap. Students were shocked to see the old map of St. Paul and the blatant racism present in the labeling of the neighborhoods. They read firsthand accounts of what the community meant to its residents and the impact the intentional destruction and displacement of the community had on them.

The StoryMap also lifted up the triumphant stories of the descendents of old Rondo, including those working to preserve and continue the legacy of Rondo. Students saw and heard many primary sources, such as storyteller testimony, news articles, photos, and videos. The sources showed students stories from their community, allowing them to learn how the past influenced their present and giving them agency in imagining the future.

Then students brainstormed ways to restore the community and built models of a land bridge to reconnect the community, a potential present-day solution. The 2892 St. Paul Collection has inspired us to want to share and document our own narratives. Next semester we are going to teach the young people how to use StoryMaps to help share stories of their own communities.

Kayla Swanson was born and raised in South Minneapolis and has over 10 years of experience working with young people and youth development organizations. After graduating from the University of Minnesota with a B.Sc. in youth studies in 2013, she moved to California and held roles including program director at a local Boys and Girls Club, Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act youth case manager, and milieu specialist. In 2018 she moved back to the Twin Cities, where she works at the Kitty Andersen Youth Science Center as the Design Team program manager and executive director of the STEM Freedom School. Kayla is passionate about teaching young people to use STEM to create positive social change in their communities.

Rose Jennings was born and raised in North Minneapolis. She developed a passion for youth work as a young adult and started her career at the Science Museum of Minnesota, leading fun hands-on projects exploring STEM. After graduating from that program, she transitioned into a role as teen coordinator at the North Community YMCA, where she mentored and built relationships with local teens. Rose is currently the assistant manager of the Design Team at the Science Museum of Minnesota’s Kitty Andersen Youth Science Center.

Featured image: From left to right, storytellers Johnny Allen, Emmanuel Donaby, Maya Johnson, Sasha Cotton, and Kasim Abdur Razzaq share fond memories of Rondo while standing on the Dale Street Bridge overlooking Interstate 94 in St. Paul, Minnesota (Jaraux Washington)

3 thoughts on “To Build Sustainable Communities, We Must Grapple With the Past

  1. Your blog post was fantastic, I must say, and I just completed reading it. Your writing style is captivating, and you have a remarkable talent for expressing complicated concepts succinctly and clearly. I not only gained a lot of knowledge from your article, but I also felt inspired. I appreciate you sharing your information and experience. Keep up the amazing work!

  2. The Science Museum of Minnesota’s Kitty Andersen Youth Science Center’s collaboration with the 2892 Miles to Go program is a wonderful example of using STEM education to engage with social justice issues and empower young people to create inclusive and sustainable communities.

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